Laura Berry Shares Her Thoughts and Expertise on Genealogy Research

From across the Pond, Laura Berry, Editor of the UK-based Your Family History magazine, shares her thoughts about tracing family history.

Photo courtesy of Laura Berry

Record Click writer and researcher Amy Brozio-Andrews recently interviewed Laura Berry, the Editor of Your Family History, a genealogy publication headquartered in the town of Barnsley, in South Yorkshire, England. Laura is an experiential genealogist and professional archives researcher, having helped generate a myriad of history programs, national newspaper and magazine articles, and books.

Laura coordinated genealogical teams for the BBC version of Who Do You Think You Are? She also worked on other BBC-produced programs including Not Forgotten, History Mysteries, and Family Ties, as well as other televised and audio programs, such as You Think You’re Royal? and Tracing Your Roots.

Laura has contributed to several publications, including the Who Do You Think You Are? Encyclopedia of Genealogy; the Reader’s Digest: How To Trace Your Family History on the Internet; and Lost Voices From the Titanic, which was written by Dr. Nick Barratt, the Editor-in-Chief of Your Family History magazine. Recently, she has been working on The History Channel’s Hidden House History.

How did you become interested in genealogy?

I was in my early 20s and had just finished university when I first became really interested in my own family history – my grandmother got the old family photos out, and I wanted to try to get my head around how all these people were connected and where they came from. She also told me a couple of family legends that got me curious. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of a story about a Victorian ancestor who married a gardener and was allegedly disinherited by her wealthy relatives – supposedly the owners of London’s Truman Brewery.

What makes Your Family History magazine stand out from other genealogy publications?

Your Family History is edited by professional genealogists. Our Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Nick Barratt, is President of the Federation of Family History Societies, a Trustee of the Society of Genealogists, and Vice President of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives. I worked with him on numerous genealogical projects before I became Your Family History magazine’s Editor, including doing research for the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and South Africa. So, we are really passionate about the subject, and we have a network of specialists on hand to give expert advice and help readers get to the bottom of their research problems.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing family history researchers today?

Modern family historians have benefited greatly from the Internet and the digitization of records, but we need to remember it still has its limitations. For example, many English and Welsh parish registers have been digitized in recent years, but there are still many more that only exist as microfilm or paper copies in archives, so you’re not getting the full picture when you carry out an online search.

In what ways has the digitization of records and their availability online changed family history research?

It’s so much quicker and easier to trace your family history back 150 years or so now, compared with the long and drawn out process that genealogists had to go through just 10 years ago, consulting paper indexes and trawling through microfilm reels just to find one family on a census return. Researching roots overseas is also an affordable and realistic prospect for many people now – I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to trace my grandfather’s Irish roots back to the 1830s. I ignored this branch when I first started out, believing the myth that barely any Irish records exist, as so many were burned in the 1920s. However the free online records made available recently (including the 1901 and 1911 census and civil registration indexes) helped get me on my way and inspired me to visit Ireland to find out even more on the ground.

What’s your advice for novice family history researchers?

To anybody just starting out, the best advice I can give is to question how you know each fact as you add it to your family tree; you should constantly ask yourself how reliable the evidence is. Don’t scrimp on documentation – ordering copies of every necessary certificate will stop you from taking a wrong turn and from spending hours (and perhaps money) researching a different family.

What’s your advice for experienced family researchers?

The same advice applies to experienced researchers – if you hit a “brick wall” it’s always worth going back with a fine-tooth comb through the research you did when you first started to make sure you didn’t miss anything the first time round. Look to see whether there were any clues in the documents you ordered months ago that hadn’t meant anything to you at the time, but perhaps now might provide the key to your problem. So making sure your research notes are thorough and easy to understand is also vital!

Looking forward, what kind of genealogy puzzles do you see being common to family history researchers among our children’s children?

I think advances in genetics will provide some really interesting conundrums for future genealogists – children born following artificial insemination with the help of a donor may want to trace their biological parents’ family history for various reasons, but data protection may hinder them in that process. Another fascinating example is children who are conceived posthumously, following Diana Blood’s ground-breaking case in the UK in the 1990s, which gave her the right to undergo IVF treatment using the sperm of her deceased husband, and to have the father’s name put on her children’s birth certificates. This may not be commonplace right now, but the future could see increasing numbers of children being conceived by this method. Future genealogists will certainly face a puzzle as to how these children could have been fathered so many years after their dad’s death.

For family researchers interested in sending you their stories to win a 6-issue subscription, what kind of elements make someone’s family history stand out?

We’re really interested in inspiring stories that have been thoroughly and creatively researched using records that few people would think to turn to. Most genealogists know how to use census returns, birth, marriage and death records, wills, newspapers and so on to find out the basics, but there’s a wealth of other archive material out there that we like to draw attention to. It’s great to find readers who have used some of those to flesh out their family tree.

Have you found that there are certain kinds of family history resources that are often overlooked?

People usually struggle to trace their English and Welsh ancestry back past 1837 when civil registration began, as parish registers are the key resource for tracing baptisms, marriages and burials prior to this year, but they’re not usually very detailed. However, local officials created plenty of other documentation at that time that can often be full of biographical information – settlement examinations, bastardy orders and taxation records, for example.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a member of the Your Family History magazine team?

Being able to interact with our readers and really make a difference to people’s research give me a great feeling. It’s wonderful when we receive letters from readers thanking us for publishing a particular article because the advice helped them to break through a problem that they had been struggling with for years. It makes all the hard work worthwhile!

For expert help with your ancestry research, consider contacting RecordClick, a genealogy ancestry service well versed in Irish genealogy research.

Photo courtesy of Laura Berry